Moss is the one plant in our garden that absolutely shines during the spring showers we're having this week. Clinging to the pond rocks or spreading across packed clay soil, moss glows in the gray light of a rainy day.
Its cheery brightness helps to keep my spirits up while I'm stuck indoors.
But I will definitely be happy to see some sun and warmer temperatures. Feels like everything in the garden — including the gardener — is in a holding pattern.
To see what some other gardens look like at the end of April/beginning of May visit The Patient Gardener who hosts a monthly meme on this topic.
What does it say about me that I can endlessly re-read classic novels like "Sense and Sensibility," "Jane Eyre," "China Court," "The Shuttle" or "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" and always find them deeply engrossing and entertaining. But hand me a current best seller and I am never quite as satisfied. I am not sure what I expect in a fiction book these days but I never seem to quite find it.
I just finished 499 pages of Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book — "The Signature of All Things" — getting engaged and annoyed in equal measure. Ultimately it was too over the top in its travels and travails. A main character who is always described in negatives whether her size, looks, hair, or personality. Two sisters who live in the same house but never speak and a best friend who is insane (literally). Not unlike life and yet not particularly involving or instructive in a novel. Or not presented in any way that worked for me.
I decided to read "Signature" because it was about a botanist, a subject I find fascinating. And our heroine was described as a person like me: someone who likes systems, sequences, pigeonholing, and indexes.
I will give Gilbert every credit when it comes to description and detail as this passage about handwriting shows:
“His penmanship was painfully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page.”
But I found the only time I paused to savor, to re-read a passage or to make a notation was when Gilbert actually was dealing with botany. Her pages and passages on mosses are pure rhapsody. As someone who has been nurturing a moss garden for years and has taken classes in the subject, waiting for those gems was what kept me reading. Here's a perfect little tidbit:
"Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anthing, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries."
The fact that I fell in love with the botany and was not moved by a single character until Uncle Dees in the last few pages should be a lesson to me. Stick to non-fiction. When I want to take a fiction break I will steer clear of "important" fiction and just look for good, quick reads.
"China Court" is one of many excellent novels by Rumer Godden. "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare is my all-time favorite youthful read. "The Shuttle" is one of Frances Hodgson Burnett's best adult novels.
Last year on this date the garden was already quite green and growing due to our unseasonably warm temperatures (see picture above). Last year the high temperature for the first day of spring in Madison set a record at 81 degrees F. Frankly it was more than a little disconcerting to have it so hot so early in the season, but I am definitely no happier with today's predicted high of 19! And the forecast shows a possible two more inches of snow on Monday. Definitely very tired of winter and dreaming about seeing my moss garden again.
This was the scene on our side of town yesterday. Wind seems to be gone this morning and it looks like a sunny day at least. Photo by MPKing/Wisconsin State Journal.
Another week of above-average temps are currently predicted, along with rain, for our area. That means everyone's grass will green up. But I've been enjoying brilliant color in the garden with the many patches of moss we have. Once the snow melts the moss is an eye-catching electric green.
It's growing in sun, in shade, on damp clay soil, on old grindstones and on rocks in the pond. The only downside is that the critters toss it around when they are looking for bugs. Then it's like a puzzle: putting the right pieces back in the empty muddy holes.
The high humidity has all of our 50-year-old apple and crabapple trees behaving badly. The leaves are turning yellow, getting ugly fungal spots and prematurely dropping. They are falling on the Moss Garden and the Moon Garden where they are not only unsightly but can easily smother the moss and the all the dwarf plants in the Moon Garden. It's so dry that blowing them off the moss will blow the moss off, too. So clean-up is an almost daily task of hand work.
Any number of critters — squirrels, racoons, who knows what — are digging ever deeper in the dry soil looking for grubs to eat. The are scattering mulch to the four winds, ripping up moss in big sheets and now, for the first time ever, they are ripping out the German iris. Usually by this point in the season, I prune the iris by literally pulling out handfuls of leaves and roots. I keep the plants in scale and can easily check for fungal problems and root rot. Maybe there are problems I've not seen that are attracting the critters. Another question and another chore to add to the July list.
I love Japanese painted fern and have it throughout the garden. It is growing in so many locations that I am currently able to look at the clumps like a science project and quickly determine the moisture content of the soil. A number of large clumps in the shade have laid down flat due to dryness. That has to be the case since this clump in full afternoon sun is lushly standing. It has had a bit more watering than other areas that are further from any hoses. But the real difference here is soil. It is planted in great soil with few large trees nearby. The floppy ones are under huge old trees where any moisture is quickly sucked up by the trees. If we're having an inch of rain per week, everybody is happy. But we're getting more like a quarter or half an inch of rain per week and the ferns are sulking. Lots of rain in the forecast for the last week but it's always described as "isolated showers," and mostly we seem to be isolated from them.
Bergenia ciliata is the other Bergenia — the one whose rounded fuzzy leaves look like an African violet on steroids. The leaves are similar in size to Bergenia cordifolia but mine are not quite as upright.
All of my Bergenias tend to flower sporadically; B. ciliata's flowers are a sweet Apple Blossom pink compared to the strident magenta of most Bergenias. But this is a plant to grow for its gorgeous foliage. If they never flowered again I wouldn't complain.
Don't let the moss in this image fool you. The ferns, the Bergenia and the moss are all growing in rather poor soil. In fact, the moss keeps colonizing the worst patches of hard-packed clay in my garden.
But the plants all seem to be happy, which means I'm happy, too.
SHE SAID: One of the ongoing maintenance issues with my moss garden has been keeping debris from washing into it during heavy rains. I couple of years ago I edged the whole area with bricks to keep the bark mulch on the adjacent path in place. It helped but it also looked — at least to me — like the temporary solution it was.
Once Mark added a gravel garden edged with flat-topped stones near the Tsukubai (above), I realized a similar treatment would be perfect bordering the moss. Not only would it solve the maintenance problem, but it would also echo the material and the opposing curve across the garden.
I convinced Mark that if we picked out the boulders now, I could do the work myself. Does any project in the garden ever turn out to be as simple and easy as we envision it? First, I realized I wasn't as strong as I imagined and had trouble even lifting some of the boulders off the piles at the stone yard, let alone out of the bed of the pickup truck and into the wheel barrows. My barrow loads were half the size and weight of Mark's.
Even when it came to setting the stones, he was annoyingly more competent. He'd done it before, but I think it's also his skill with 3-d concepts and visualizing. I agonized over every rock trying to decide if it would work next to the previous one, while he glanced at the pile and saw the exact jigsaw piece required next.
Suffice it to say that Mark did the majority of the edging work; meaning it was done efficiently and thoughtfully. I did enough to understand the work involved and to truthfully claim that I helped. It looks great and seems to be working. Now I need to backfill any spaces between the rocks with clay to encourage more moss.
Actually, the new border looked so good that it necessitated moving one of the future projects on the garden life list to first place: replacing the wood chip paths with gravel. The paths desperately needed new mulch and it seemed a waste of time and money to put down chips again.
I suggested we redo the paths now and be done with that particular project on our list. Mark agreed and we went looking for gray stone to match what we'd already used elsewhere in the garden. Of course, no one had quite the same size but it's unlikely that anyone but us will notice the difference!
The next step involved measuring and marking the paths so the width would be the same and the curves the degree we wanted. Mark — as is his habit — made a tool when I said I was having trouble easily marking off the 3' width so I could remove grass and plants in the way. He used the tops from some tin cans to make little "wheels" so we could make a visible mark in the dirt.
He pretty much took over the task of prepping the old path for its new topping, too. He raked up the old mulch, sifting it to save reusable soil.
He removed a layer of soil approsimately 3" deep x 3' wide x 200' of path. We now have a gorgeous pile of soil ready to fill in low spots in the garden or to pot up houseplants.
And he cleaned up the paths all the way to the weed barrier that was put down the year we installed the pond: 1997! All that's left now is to get the gravel in place and we're done.
SHE SAID: Some things happen in the garden by design, others are the result of serendipity; our moss garden being a perfect example of the later. We'd seen pictures of the famous moss Temple Garden at Saihoji, of course. And we'd even seen the incredible moss garden at the Bloedel Reserve in the Pacific Northwest in person. But living in the upper Midwest, we never thought we'd be able to have a moss garden of our own — not until I realized we had the classic American dilemma: lawn grass that was attempting to grow in ever deepening shade under a pair of mature apple trees.
One day I realized there were lush patches of moss growing in the midst of the grass. You couldn't actually see them unless you were at ground level looking down. I wondered how one could get rid of the grass without harming the moss. For starters, I decided on a low-tech approach: I sat down and began to pull out the grass — stem by stem — until the moss patch was visible. I held the moss in place with the palm of one hand while I pulled out the grass with the other hand. Usually, the grass just pulled through the moss, roots and all, without doing serious damage.
I knew nothing about moss before I began my grass removal process — neither of us did. But two men came to our rescue: the first was George Schenk with his award-winning book, "Moss Gardening Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures." The book was packed with information, ideas for employing moss in the garden and gorgeous, inspirational pictures. Schenk's book convinced me a moss garden was worth the effort required.
The second font of moss wisdom was Andrew Hipp who taught a two-day workshop, "Introduction to Wisconsin Mosses," at the UW-Madison Arboretum. At the time, Hipp was finishing up his PhD at UW; today Dr. Hipp is the plant systematist and herbarium curator at the Morton Arboretum in Illinois. Mark and I both signed up for the class and spent a number of pleasant hours looking at and learning about mosses in a funky old classroom that was like a small cabin and had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s when they were part of the team effort that built the Arboretum.
We discovered a lot about mosses, including:
1. There are 13,000 species of mosses and 380 types can be found in Wisconsin. There are fewer mosses in urban areas as they are sensitive to pollution.
2. Mosses can dry down and re-hydrate when it rains. Knowing that bit of info keeps me from watering my moss patches even during periods of drought.
3. Mosses will come to your garden based on the conditions you have. So I don't take any moss from the wild or other locations. That way I get the ones that are looking for acidic clay soil — which is where my best mosses all grow. I also don't have to wonder which ones want sun and which shade as the appropriate ones will site themselves. Our largest moss garden is under big old apple trees; but other patches are next to the fence on both sides of the drip line; between tree roots and stepping stones in both sun and shade, on moist ground and on hard-packed clay.
4. Mosses are almost always growing with other different mosses. If you look at this photo you can see three different types. Identifying them, however, is always done under a microscope using particular parts of the moss. We brought samples of moss from our garden to the class and had them identified; but we would be hard pressed to name any of them today. We decided to just enjoy them and encourage them, but not worry about names and id's. We opted for the sensuality of moss over the science.
One of the things I've learned from experience is that mosses can come and go. They may suddenly desert a location where they grew lushly for a few years. Sometimes they return to a spot nearby, though usually not the exact same place. So I try to keep the patches weed free and to remove leaves and other debris which will suffocate the moss or keep it from direct contact with soil. I try to make sure that I'm not the cause of the mosses' disappearance.
Moss is a much prettier and softer ground cover than grass and looks great during winter thaws unlike lawn suddenly revealed by snow melt. But it can't take the rough and tumble that grass can (kids and dogs), nor is it particularly low maintenance. It may not need fertilizing or weekly cuttings but I am constantly working to keep it clean and free of the wood chips which wash over the brick edging of the path adjacent to the moss during big storms. That's an ongoing maintenance issue that we plan to devote our attention to this summer.
One gardener I know uses fine mesh to keep the leaves and debris off her moss. I bought a big piece from her last summer but have not been exactly vigilant in using it.In fact, the moss is covered with tiny green crab apples and yellowing leaves that have fallen in the last couple of days. I pick them up constantly but my efforts only last a few minutes at most.
The other moss maintenance issue is weeding. It is ideal for seedlings of everything from dandelions to Jack-in-the-pulpit. There's always clumps of fine grass or vining weeds to pull out.
Given the moss/grass comparison, would we encourage you to grow moss instead? Absolutely. I like to think of it the way George Schenk does: "I personally find that while moss certainly requires care, the job seems to give back more than does the relentless routine of lawn upkeep," he notes in his book. "The work of moss gardening has an elitist quality that I must admit I find appealing. Every John and Jane grows grass. Only Nature's chosen grow moss."